Throughout months of rising tensions between Kim Jong Un’s North Korean regime and a consortium of foreign nations led by the United States, one question has loomed like a dark cloud over the diplomatic effort to avoid war: can sanctions actually affect any real change? A new series of sanctions making their way to a security council vote on Friday may finally answer that question once and for all.

New sanctions that may soon be adopted by the United Nations would see a ban on nearly all oil imports into the nation (previously limited to 2 million barrels per year) as well as a ban on exported labor, a significant revenue source for Kim’s regime. These sanctions may well be the final straw that forces Kim to the negotiating table… but what signs do we have that sanctions work at all?

While there are clear indicators that the economic sanctions in place, levied by both the United States and the United Nations, have had a significant effect on the day-to-day lives of North Koreans, it’s also clear that they have thus far failed to inhibit Kim’s pursuit of banned ballistic missile platforms or continued nuclear weapons testing.

The November launch of the Hwasong-15, North Korea’s most advanced ICBM platform to date, proved unequivocally that the near-two month lull in missile testing was not a show of good will, but rather a momentary focus on North Korea’s harvest season – a season of even greater importance than usual amid the aforementioned sanctions. Further, satellite images taken recently show ongoing excavations at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site buried beneath Mount Mantap. This work suggests Kim has plans for subsequent detonations, despite growing international concerns that the mountain itself may not be able to survive further testing.

So, it’s clear that Kim Jong Un has not wavered in his pursuit of either the platform or the weapon system, but that doesn’t mean the sanctions haven’t begun to sting. Here are signs that sanctions are already working:

The number of military defectors

(United Nations photo)

While it is never uncommon for North Korean citizens to try defect to South Korea by way of indirect routes that often travel through Kim-friendly nations like China, this year has seen a sharp uptick in North Koreans throwing caution to the wind and simply making a break for South Korean territory. Between 2011 and 2016, only four North Korean soldiers attempted to defect to South Korea. That number has been matched by North Korean troops fleeing to South Korea in just the last six months. It’s important to note that the stakes are incredibly high for defectors. Being caught would almost certainly result in death or a life sentence in one of North Korea’s prison camps – and the punishment is often extended through three generations of the defector’s family.

The condition of defectors

Parasites found in November’s North Korean defector (YouTube)

The defection of a North Korean soldier in November provided us with some insight into the conditions of North Korea’s border guards, which is telling of the overall state of Kim’s military and populous. North Korea has long provided border troops with better rations and equipment, in order to ensure a visibly strong presence in the face of U.N. and South Korean forces… but when doctors began operating on the man to treat his bullet wounds (suffered from North Korean troops trying to prevent his defection), they found little more than hardened kernels of corn and significant, untreated parasitic infections. The defector was 3 inches shorter and almost 25-pounds lighter than your average South Korean high school student, as well – so if he was among the most hearty and well-fed of Kim’s troops, those stationed elsewhere in the nation may be in dire circumstances. Worse still, if the military is living in such conditions, those damned to Kim’s labor camps are almost certainly far worse off.

Ghost ships on Japanese shores

(Wikimedia Commons)

It hasn’t been entirely uncommon for suspected North Korean fishing boats to wash up on Japanese shores, sometimes with a crew, sometimes without. North Korean fishermen make their living in the dangerous waters of the Sea of Japan, after all. However, as things have grown more desperate inside Kim’s state, more fishermen have been venturing further out in pursuit of bountiful fishing grounds. As a result, a large influx of damaged ships, and often dead sailors, have begun washing up on Japanese shores. Again, although these events aren’t unheard of, it’s the increase in frequency that serves as an indicator that things may be growing desperate within the DPRK’s borders.

Ship to ship transfers

(US Treasury)

This week, the United States blacklisted ten more vessels for aiding in “ship-to-ship” transfers that have been helping to sell North Korean goods at ports that have banned shipments from Kim’s regime. The practice is simple: North Korean vessels simply meet with ships from other nations in the open ocean and transfer their contents to the vessels that can navigate foreign ports freely. Doing so is a clear effort to circumvent economic sanctions, and the foreign vessels that agree to participate are accepting a great deal of risk. This means North Korea must be offering reward commensurate with that risk for the assistance. Based on extrapolations of conditions within North Korea formed from the previous three entries in this article then, North Korea likely doesn’t have much to bargain with for these shipments, other than offering a beneficial share of the profits for the sold goods to the ships that are willing to help. This could indicate a weakening hand for negotiations, and a growing sense of desperation.


It would seem that sanctions on North Korea are indeed having an effect, but Kim has chosen to insulate his weapons programs while allowing his people to suffer the consequences of their pursuit. A new bevy of sanctions, including near cut off of oil imports into the nation may be enough to break through the fiscial insulation Kim has in place, or at least to make conditions for his people dire enough that it would be impossible to ignore. The question remains if China will support the effort – though it’s uncommon for these sanction proposals to even reach the security council without the U.S. and China already finding a common ground on them.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to vote on these new sanctions Friday.


Image courtesy of the Associated Press